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"Her Service Is Perfect Freedom"

The White Goddess , 3rd ed., by Robert Graves. London: Faber & Faber, 1952.

The Poems of Robert Graves (Chosen by Himself ). Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1958.

The Golden Ass , by Lucius Apuleius. Translated by Robert Graves. Harmondsworth, England: Penguin Books, 1950.

The Twelve Caesars , by Gaius Suetonius Tranquillus. Translated by Robert Graves. Harmondsworth, England: Penguin Books, 1957.

Robert Graves presents an attractive figure; he is diverse, he is multifaceted as some might say, he writes clearly and with engaging emphases. Many of his books—like the occasions which prompted them—may well fall away; but some, equally, seem squarely fated to stick.

So, what to think of The White Goddess? Is she really for real—because that has, it seems, been the question. Perhaps it is our ingrained monogamy that has made most readings of this book, ironically enough, a frustrated rejection of its proposals. The subtitle gives an orientation, however; the book is "A historical grammar of poetic myth." By its "historical," the text will depend on what is known in and of time; by its "grammar," will offer a wherewithal to "know one's letters"; and, by "poetic myth," will depend on those

Poetry , March 1959.


evidences, tales of the tribe, which poets, the makers in language, have used as a basis for their work. This in hand, one may read as literally as he cares to; but he would do well to see that the book is an "argument" as much in its own form and methods, as it is in the literal details to which it refers.

In short, this book is much concerned with an image of how poets have worked in this world, and of the "magic" source by which they have survived. Poetic faith, Coleridge's plea for a "willing suspension of disbelief," the timeless acknowledgment of the other , such things may, or may not, depend upon the matrilineal institutions which Graves exhaustively discovers. But his working premises of conjecture, of a formulative (basically) rather than an analytic ordering of the "what happened," are, I would argue, the only ones which will work in this area. He is right that the poet is a man peculiarly fated to move by such alphabets as he restores, and by such sidewise containment of knowledge as "The Battle of the Trees" demonstrates. Philosophically enough, the poet is here to prove nothing but the continuance of that which was given him on his arrival. The Muse, "the White Goddess . . . the Mother of All Living, the ancient power of fright and lust," etc., is both source and denial; seen as "generation" there is no other relevance possible. Because if you are a poet, you will know that presence of fate, against which you might, even effectually, interpose your own will—if you covet a quick death, and the loss of all you thought to honor. The principle of the animate, in language, is that "things" can become absorbed by their presence there, until their life, in that character, equally represents their force in other, more "literally" given, characters. This, in turn, can generate a power of reverence and recognition capable of continuance. The Goddess, whether characterized as the ultimately personal, or impersonal, wife, mother, queen, or simply the generically "unknown," is the most persistent other of our existence, eschewing male order, allowing us to live at last. The obedience of a poet's gratitude, for this, is the authority which you hear in his poems, and it is obedience to a presence which is, if you will, that which is not understood, ever; but which he characterizes as all that can happen in living, and seeks to form an emblem for, with words.

Otherwise poets, like other men, face the necessities of this life, in terms of the money needed to support themselves and their families. Graves has found his solution in making prose support his verse; and thinking of the diverse occupations which poets in this


country have used to accomplish the same end, it appears happy for him that he has so managed. But the evidence indicates that this way has had its problems. Five Pens in Hand , a miscellany of his criticism, stories, etc., is reminiscent of the schoolman's "Publish or perish . . ." With few exceptions (e.g., "The White Goddess," "Prologue to a Poetry Reading") nothing offers much purchase for the problem with which Graves has been elsewhere concerned. If nothing in the collection represents "any task or . . . any relationship . . . inconsistent with poetic principles . . . ," again "nothing" is the explanation, by being what is said. The book documents, painfully, what is necessary to manage self-support by writing; how persistently one must be entertaining (cf. "The Whitaker Negroes"); how able to rise to any occasion (cf. "Legitimate Criticism of Poetry"). The process is the more uncomfortable, since the ingenuous good nature back of it all will expose whatever the dictates of the situation ask for—a situation as endlessly of no use as the minds of the editors who create it.

Fairer purpose, better game, for this process is one which allows a firmer grip on such "occasions," as Graves' historical novels have previously shown. Two books, each in its own way, give quick example, i.e., his translations of Suetonius' The Twelve Caesars , and of Apuleius' The Golden Ass . In America we read Latin poorly, if at all; and translation is a thing on which we are more and more dependent. Graves' translation of Suetonius demonstrates a very certain "poetic" facility, an intuitive response to another man's mode of speaking; and the text is thereby restored to wit and precision, which are things often lost in the translation of Latin. Equally, his transformation of The Golden Ass from a somewhat bawdy "classic" to a whimsically moving, full-fledged "religious experience" is token of "poetic" insight, notable here since the vision of the Goddess (pp. 268–71) in other hands might have proved full of doubt or awkward acknowledgment.

But it would be better to forget all of these books, to keep hold only of The White Goddess , an act of poetic faith if ever there was one—when you read Graves' poems. Coming from such a Hydraheaded intelligence, they are nonetheless small, lyric, and often commonplace in their concerns. When one thinks of the sheer bulk of prose written in order to support their creation, one is staggered; but that too is like the day, which passeth away. The point is, it does not really matter how you write a poem, so long as you write it.

A poet's "handwriting," whereby he may be known, Graves has


termed the rhythms peculiar to his work; to which I would add, it is also the rhythm of his thought, of the ways in which he sees the "out there," and the "in." Graves' forms are primarily traditional, which fact may blur them for a careless reader; but he both uses and informs them in a manner unlike our own current "traditionalists." By which I mean that he is at home in them, thinks with them, and shapes the content of his obligation to their pattern with a good grace:

The Door

When she came suddenly in
It seemed the door could never close again,
Nor even did she close it—she, she—
The room lay open to a visiting sea
Which no door could restrain.

Yet when at last she smiled, tilting her head
To take leave of me,
Where she had smiled, instead
There was a dark door closing endlessly,
The waves receded.

A constant acquaintance with any woman will take humor; it is the only footnote possible. No poet ever quite dares to make such reference to the Goddess, but a deep humor grows also from that association. This element is a constant in Graves' poems; "Questions in a Wood," "Woman and Tree," and many more, some funny outright, and some much more quietly, give evidence of that one male prerogative he has used for sustenance. Others, at last with bitterness, strike flatly on despair:

Counting the beats,
Counting the slow heart beats,
The bleeding to death of time in slow heart beats,
Wakeful they lie . . .
("Counting the Beats")

Despair or not, like it or not, the faith which Graves defends comes of belief, and is a renewal. You die many times to acknowledge one birth.


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